Pragmatism of Absolute Prohibition on Liquor: A Successful Experimentation during the Covid-19 Emergency Lock-Down

The government-licensed foreign liquor ON/OFF Shops, Liquor Bars and the Country Liquor Shops [providing Legal Duty-Paid Liquor (hereinafter legal liquor in short)] have remained closed for more than one month during this nation-wide COVID-19 Emergency Lock-Down since 24th March 2020.

The disappearance of legal liquor for human consumption during the lock-down was sudden, abrupt and absolute. Non-availability legal liquor in the market from one fine evening grew into days, then days into weeks, and weeks added up to one complete month… and the closure period for the legal liquor Shops is elongating. It is at least understood that Liquor is a non-essential commodity. Needless to say that Liquor itself does not help spread the deadly virus, though the liquor-induced-reckless-human behaviour certainly plays the devil. No one hopefully should question the logic and wisdom of the government behind extending the shutting-down period of the legal liquor shops for some more time.

Yet, this completely forced-stop in the consumption of legal liquor by the governmental dictat did not result in any major mass-scale health hazard for the liquor-addicts. Hardly has there been any reported and confirmed case of hooch tragedy/ liquor tragedy (which is one of the worst nightmares for the government) during this more than one long month. There has been no incidence of any mass-scale health hazard, nor any liquor tragedy of the sort that we have experienced in the past.

Until now it has been a deep-rooted belief that non-availability of legal liquor would certainly pave the way for a surge in the illegal and spurious liquor trade and consumption, which would then result in mass-scale Liquor Tragedy. This has turned out to be a myth; the myth which has so far been fuelled by ill-conceived and fully wrong notion paddled by the vested interests, and that myth now appears to have been busted before each one of us during this long period of Lock-Down. Fake idea mongering, peddling of fake information by the vested interests are invariably harmful for each of the primary constituents of the society, be it an individual, an organisation or the government.

Let’s observe the scenario little closely and in a discreet manner. Could we see any indication or pattern emerging from this hitherto unknown experience?

Legal liquor just stopped being available completely! It vanished one fine evening as the Lock-Down was clamped, without holding out any promise for the addict to return anytime soon. The circumstances of complete absence of liquor has been forced-imposed on the liquor-consuming addicts and the people in general by the order of the regime that came so suddenly for which the liquor-consuming people could hardly have been prepared beforehand by resorting to any stock-piling or storing liquor to the meet the eventuality. This closure certainly has left the liquor-addicts high and dry. Still no (so far feared and understood) mass-scale health hazard or tragedy has struck as of now!

The Lock-Down is going to be eased and relaxed and normalcy in the market is going to be restored in a good number of places freed from COVID-19 on or before 3rd May 2020. There has been no incidence of any confirmed case of liquor death or mass-scale health hazard of any liquor-addict until now during the Lock-Down. There has been no surfacing of any case of any form of intolerably painful suffering due to any strong alcohol-induced withdrawal syndrome or any other serious medical condition caused by sudden stoppage of intake of liquor for a long period of time by the liquor-addict. The much-talked about habit-forming feature (borne out of prolonged liquor consumption) causing harm to the liquor-addicts on a mass-scale just did not happen during the passage of more-than-one month period. The situation did not become unmanageable; it did not turn out to be a mass health problem; and remained well within control; it just did not become a troublesome embarrassment and headache not only for the government, but also for ground-level law-enforcement officials and public-health workers. The peace prevailed without onslaught on law and order, and the nation fought tooth and nail pin-pointedly to treat the ill and to contain the spread of the pandemic. The crime-graph during the period of Lock-Down dwindled and took a sharp nose-dive, while each one of us, be it a liquor-addict or otherwise, behaved with sanity, to understand and follow the instructions and health advisories issued by the government from time to time. We stayed indoors with our emotions and eccentricities well within control.

Before does one fall back on old ways to consume liquor, the present moment turns out to be the most opportune moment in the history of mankind to look at the issue with the new-found consciousness that just busted a dreaded myth (that so far has held the long hands of the government tied-up and speculating)? Should we consider it to be now or never, a defining moment? The time is just ripe enough to ponder over the situation (that has offered one of its own kind experience) seriously—as never ever in the recent memory, there evolved such a peculiar situation that ensured a complete stop of legal liquor, so forcefully imposed in all absolute terms. Let’s not lose sight of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The wisdom arrived at may be serendipitous, the experience may be a sheer chance discovery—however let’s not waste this realisation so hard-earned.

Let’s learn to unlearn the deep-seated ideas, pre-conceived notions, myths, fake information and ghost-like unfounded fears. Let’s start discussion and debate afresh among all the stake-holders: the Central and State governments, the law-givers, the policy makers, the law enforcement agencies, the NGOs and the informed and vigilant citizenry to look at the big picture—to devise ways and means—to completely do away with legal liquor and excise revenue that the government earns vis-a-vis the well-known, well-proven and time-tested social, economic and public health costs that the government is being made to incur (which is again from the tax-payers money).

Making it completely Liquor-Free is undoubtedly a very difficult exercise; but is it out and out impossible? This long period of Lock-Down experience may be holding the key to the answer. The future of each of the organisations and that of everybody around—our parents, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, our immediate and extended families, our friends and relatives, our youth, the entire society—the future of every individual stares at us intently. What is then going to be our defining behaviour? Let’s ponder over it, and try and take step in the right direction.

There is a belief that if legal liquor stops by any governmental dictat or prohibition order, then illegal liquor would replace legal liquor; then illegal liquor no doubt is spurious, poisonous and unfit for human consumption; then consumption of illegal liquor by the gullible and desperate liquor addict would begin; then liquor tragedy is bound to follow as a consequence; hence, government should stay away from prohibiting liquor, rather government should make provision for making liquor legally available, and the government may taxes on Liquor sale and earn a hefty excise revenue—a win-win situation for the both—one who consumes (the addict) and the other who provides (the government). Now we understand that the kernel of this belief system is unreasonable and irrational.

Simply speaking, consumption of liquor in all its variants: be it foreign made foreign liqor (FMFL), India made foreign liquor (IMFL) (and FMFL and IMFL include whisky, rum, gin, vodka etc), Beer, Wine, Country Spirit and Out-Still Liquor—is bad for health. There is no distinction between good-liquor and bad-liquor. Liquor has done only harm, never any good in the march of time, deepening the bodily afflictions and heightening the economic miseries cutting across various social strata and stations in life.
We understand that consumption of any liquor is injurious to health, and prolong intake of liquor is certain to damage the vital organs of the human body that threaten the very survival irrespective of biological age of the person.
Under the plea and pretext of revenue generation, employability from the point of production, transportation up to the point of retail sale, business propositions in restaurants and bars, should one turn a blind eye to the ill-effects of liquor, and support the proliferation and spread of the illness and disease instead?

Making provision of liquor is not a fundamental duty of the state, nor is the demand for liquor a fundamental right of a person. Rather the paramount duty of the state is to protect the public health. And the central government and the State governments have demonstrated prompt, unhesitant, unique and exemplary form of political leaderships and concerns during COVID-19 days for restoration of public health which have been held to be of paramount importance, just second to none else despite huge economic costs incurred. Distancing from liquor, in the form of a thorough and complete ban, can be perceived to be one of the social distancing measure of highest order! A sort of absolute social rejection of one of the potential hazard to public health safety peace and order of the greatest and deadliest magnitude. There should not be any policy of gradualism to get rid of liquor altogether—in one go no slow step by step approach in piecemeal manner—as we have witnessed happening so practically during the Lock-down.

Under the garb of revenue generation, let’s not put the society at large into a health hazard of catastrophic proportion. Let’s programme ourselves for a life-style change for the betterment of our own health, and impose complete prohibition of liquor (legal or otherwise—in all its conceivable hues) in every possible manner. Common sense speaks volumes that the costs of consumption of liquor in terms of public health hazard, threat to life and limb, loss to the individual, firm and the economy at large, rise in the crime trend, destruction of relations and families, disturbance of societal peace and order are not only numerous and varied, but also hugely incalculable in comparison to revenue which appears insignificant.

Now it is time for the welfare government to pay a serious attention—to deal pragmatically with the new-found consciousness and to capitalise on the gain of experience, with ill-conceived myths that stand busted and exposed—to rise to occasion to make a historical choice: to continue to regulate and raise revenue from legal liquor or to take a definitive step to uphold public health, safety, societal peace and order in a holistic manner in the greater interest of the society and justice.

    Niranjan Moharana
(The author is a practising Advocate, High Court of Orissa, Cuttack.)